We’re losing the war on climate change. And our best weapon is one we’re badly under-utilizing.
The world is in the midst of the greatest surge in carbon emissions it has ever seen. In 2013, the residents of planet Earth will likely emit around a billion tons more CO2 than they did in 2012, where in turn they emitted almost a billion tons more CO2 than they did in 2011.
The drivers of this surge of carbon pollution are simple. Around the world, 6 billion people are climbing out of what most Americans would consider poverty. Those men, women, and children—in Asia, in Sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin America—crave cars, larger homes, central heat, air conditioning, televisions, and mass-produced goods of all sorts. All of that takes energy. And what sort of energy do people choose? The cheapest kind available.
There are a host of proposals for how to address climate change around the world: a global cap-and-trade system, pervasive carbon taxes, renewable energy mandates, even geo-engineering schemes. All of those are worth pursuing. Many of them are yielding fruit today. But so far, they’ve proven very far from sufficient in tackling the problem.
There is one over-arching, unilateral strategy that would address climate change, without the need for global treaties or bruising fights with industry. It’s this: Make renewable energy so cheap that it hardly makes sense to use anything else. Make it cheaper to use solar and wind than coal or natural gas, and utilities and industry will switch. The larger the price difference is, the faster that switch will happen.
The potential is there. The Sun strikes Earth with thousands of times more energy than humanity uses from fossil fuels. The energy in just a few weeks of sunlight is greater than our known or projected reserves of fossil fuels, combined. Solar panels on less than 1% of Earth’s land area could meet all of our energy needs for the century to come. And the prices of solar panels are already plunging, dropping by more than half in the last two years, and by a factor of four since 2000.
Yet, as the continued exponential growth in carbon emissions shows, that price drop isn’t happening fast enough. At the current pace of price reduction, we’re on track for burning fossil fuels as our primary source of energy well past 2040, a path that would blow us well beyond the consensus 2 degrees Celsius threshold for preventing the most dangerous warming.
Our most important lever, our most important weapon, is directed innovation, R&D directly into techniques that would further drop the costs of green energy and energy storage technologies.
Yet the U.S. government spends only $2 billion each year on green energy R&D. Those $2 billion have produced great returns, to be sure. For instance, research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has led to new solar cells with a record breaking 45% efficiency. Another research project from NREL led to the creation of an "optical furnace" that could further cut the cost of manufacturing solar panels in half.
Yet that $2 billion we spend is a pittance compared to the $65 billion in damage that hurricane Sandy wrought last year, or the $35 billion in damage that 2012’s epic drought inflicted.
Even within the realm of green energy spending, our priorities are inverted. The economic stimulus resulted in spending of somewhere between $34 and $50 billion on renewable energy and efficiency projects, yet the vast majority of that went to deployment rather than R&D. This is exactly backwards. Spending billions of dollars a year on clean energy deployment won’t make an appreciable dent in global carbon emissions. But additional billions of dollars per year could drive innovation that accelerates the price decline of green energy. Once clean energy is cheaper than fossil fuels, then the market—with access to trillions of dollars in capital—will take care of deployment. Our top priority must be accelerating the pace of innovation to drive down the underlying cost of solar, wind, and storage.
Climate change is here, now. And even worse may be in store. In addition to Sandy’s crippling of the East Coast and the drought that knocked out a third of the U.S. corn crop, 2012 brought a new record low in the size of the Arctic ice cap, bringing the ice coverage down to a level not seen in thousands of years. Satellite measures tell us that, by volume, four fifths of the ice that covered the Arctic in 1979 is now gone. As the rest of that ice melts, darker waters below will absorb more heat, speeding the warming of the planet. And the nearby Arctic tundra—with nearly a trillion tons of frozen carbon—will be at risk of thawing and releasing that carbon into the atmosphere, setting off a new tipping point in climate change.
We can’t afford to risk such tipping points. R&D spending to drive innovation that lowers the price of green energy is the most powerful tool we have. It’s a unilateral weapon with which we can change the behavior of the entire world. Make green energy cheap, and the world will come. To succeed in that goal, we need to up our investment to a level commensurate with the threat.